As my sons were growing up, they could always tell when I was paying the bills. When I finished, I’d let loose a volley of words they weren’t supposed to use (or hear). Invariably, my check register—plumped for a few moments by my monthly paycheck—showed mostly zeros. My boys thought it was funny. I did not. In those days when my sons were young, there never seemed to be enough money. My husband and I worked hard, and yet where was the cash for the grown-up stuff like a beach vacation or a red cashmere sweater? But crafting a budget, well, it never occurred to me. I paid my bills and held my breath. And more often than I like to admit, I bought that lovely sweater on credit, convincing myself I’d be able to pay for it later. For a long time, I had a bit of a schizoid attitude toward money. I’d watched my mom spend with abandon, coming home with armfuls of clothes she’d model for us, deciding which to keep. But other times she’d nickel-and-dime like crazy, copying the numbers off clothing tags so she could find the items discounted at Loehmann’s, or economizing with powdered milk.
My father was also conflicted about money: He worried constantly about catastrophes that might wipe him out, buying up insurance policies. But he also spent easily on steak dinners and good Scotch. For him, as for all of us, money was fraught with meaning: In the 1930s, he had watched his physician father weep on the front steps of his Arkansas home over the money he lost in the Great Depression. He told his four children that the one with the lowest college grades would have to drop out to work, so for the next year, my father hustled as a bellboy. My dad—the bellboy-turned lawyerturned- corporate executive—forever after viewed the world through dollar signs. A person’s success—and ability to survive—was measured by money. For me, the daughter who, at age 20, decided to become a poet, his measuring stick ensured a fraught relationship with money. How could I ever earn enough to be enough? My solution: Choose a profession in which I was almost assured of living on the edge, and at the same time, willfully ignore the edge I was on—until the end of every month. It wasn’t fun. In fact, my anger at having well-off parents as I bloomed into a meager adulthood blossomed into mindlessness: I lived as I’d watched my parents live—nice clothes, nice house, nice credit cards. And when a sterner reality faced me in the form of a pile of bills, my reaction was anger—at myself, at my innocent husband, at my underpaid profession. Of course, I’m not the only one with a complicated money story. Most people have an easier time talking about sex than finances. There are those of us who spend too much or save too much, who buy things with money we don’t have, or who check our bank accounts more often than a trader checks the Dow. “Money in and of itself has little meaning,” says Linda Marks, M.S.M., a psychotherapist and adjunct professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “But we’ve projected our survival, security, social status and power needs onto it. Because of that, money is very emotionally charged.”